A standard bearer.
by Phil Berg
Base Price $26,570
As Tested $36,860
Jeep Grand Cherokee is immensely popular. Along with the Ford Explorer, it's one of the first sport-utility vehicles that comes to people's minds.
A complete redesign for 1999 brought a roomier, more comfortable cabin and smoother new engines. For 2000, the new 4.7-liter engine is being offered with two-wheel drive and the Selec-Trac transfer case.
Two trim levels are available, Laredo and Limited. Retail prices: Laredo 2WD ($26,570); Laredo 4WD ($28,540); Limited 2WD ($31,915) Limited 4WD ($34,345).
Both trim levels offer a long list of standard features. Limited adds automatic climate control,
Two engines are offered. Standard equipment is Jeep's 4.0-liter inline-6 was re-engineered for 1999. It's quieter, cleaner and more powerful, producing 195 horsepower. Optional is an all-new 4.7-liter overhead-cam V8 was introduced last year.
Grand Cherokees come standard with rear-wheel drive, but that seems like buying a Louisville Slugger just to hit rocks. Four-wheel drive is the soul of the Grand Cherokee and three different systems are available.
Totally re-engineered last year, Grand Cherokee is 3 inches longer than pre-1999 model but its wheelbase is the same. It looks taller, bowed on top with a forehead look to the front of the roof. Its round lines look like Paul Bunyan took his sanding block to the previous sharp body creases.
Seats are comfortable, but lack support for hard driving. The front seats have thickly padded longitudinal ribs and seem a bit cushy for serious off-road driving. The bottom cushion has ridges to keep you in place, but the backrest has no lateral support. This makes it easy to slide into while wearing a bulky coat, but when you're fast into a hard corner such as an entrance ramp that leads onto a 65-mph freeway, you may need to use the door to hold yourself in place.
Rear legroom is tight. That hurts on the marathon runs with four fishing buddies, but you won't notice much cramping on an evening with two couples. Climbing into the back seats is much easier than before, however, because the rear doors are wider.
More space is available for cargo because the spare tire was moved from its upright position on the left rear side of the cargo compartment to lie down under the load floor. As a result, you'll have to lift groceries a bit higher because the load floor is relatively high.
The instrument panel looks simpler, more modern, but it's still a long reach to the dashboard for the radio and climate controls. Part of that impression comes from the high seating position. Controls and switches have been improved in feel and operation, including the Jeep's once-balky turn signal/wiper combination stalk.
The initial view from the driver's seat leaves you with the impression the hood is too high, but it slopes down on its sides, so your vision isn't blocked in turning. One reason the spare was relocated to under the load floor was to give more visibility rearward. However, if you leave the headrests in place on the rear seatback, they block more view than the spare used to. There is a benefit: when you turn sharply to your left from the driver's seat, you can glance through a small slice of glass area in the rear quarter window. This view was formerly blind because that's where the spare used to be.
Jeep's Grand Cherokee drives like a truck, with a tall, body-rolling ride. Off-road, or driving down a bumpy, rutted rural lane, it feels controlled and steady. It feels more buttoned down, more maneuverable, and more fun to drive than your neighbor's Explorer. There's no need to slow down for rough railroad crossings in the Grand Cherokee.
Underneath, the Grand Cherokee still sits atop live axles. The trend among competing sport-utilities is to use independent suspensions for better highway performance. But the Jeep's live axle is only a drawback on paper. The Jeep retains its unitbody integrated truck frame-and-body design. This unusual design strategy - also used by the smaller Jeep Cherokee and the Nissan Pathfinder - results in a Grand Cherokee that is lighter and more rigid than it would be using more traditional designs. With adjustments for similar equipment, Jeep says the new Grand Cherokee is about 50 pounds lighter overall. Less weight and a tighter turning radius help make the Grand Cherokee more maneuverable.
Steering is quick but isolated, despite a thorough restructuring of the front engine cradle and front suspension and steering component mounts. When you turn the wheel you can't feel how much the front tires want to slip on pavement. You don't really steer the Grand Cherokee as much as guide it. But that's the same for all of the top-selling sport-utilities. Like them, the Jeep's still a truck, sitting tall, rolling side to side in corners and high winds.
The biggest improvement in the ride of the Grand Cherokee is a newfound tendency to stay pointed straight ahead. A triangle link that replaces the Panhard rod locating the rear axle is directly responsible for this improvement. Careful tuning of suspension mounts and drivetrain mounts allows the live axles of the Jeep a lot of compliant movement. The axles move and pivot on large bumps and dirt holes where the independent suspensions of other SUVs reach their limits of travel and ultimately toss the occupants about inside.
With the 4.7-liter V8, the Grand Cherokee accelerates smoothly, with none of the mechanical grumbling and roaring of the previous engines. With single overhead cams on each cylinder bank, the 4.7-liter V8 produces 235 horsepower. Torque is down slightly from the big overhead-valve V8s, so you lose a little performance at the drag strip, but gain peace and tranquility. Aided by its relative light weight, the Jeep feels faster and more responsive than most six-cylinder SUVs as well as the huge Tahoes and Expeditions.
The four-speed automatic transmission shifts unobtrusively. Hurrying up a mountain or around weekend-warrior crazies is a breeze with the higher second gear.
Grand Cherokees with the six-cylinder engine come with Jeep's renowned Selec-Trac system. In full-time mode, the vehicle is in four-wheel drive with a planetary differential allowing the front and rear axles to turn at different speeds. This works well in heavy rainstorms or in the winter when roads are partially covered by snow and ice. In part-time mode, the center differential is locked to provide maximum traction in severe traction conditions.
Order the optional V8 and you get the clever Quadra-Trac II system. Its simple but effective automatic locking center differential apportions torque to the front wheels whenever the rear wheels slip.
The Quadra-Drive system is optional on both the 6-cylinder and V8 models. Quadra-Drive is the same system as Quadra-Trac II, but it adds hydraulically locking front and rear differentials. By using three differentials, the system automatically sends torque front-to-rear and side-to-side whenever a wheel slips. It can lock all four wheels together for maximum traction. If just one wheel has the slightest bit of grip, the Quadra-Drive system can keep the Grand Cherokee moving -- a real benefit when it's icy.
None of Jeep's three available four-wheel-drive systems need any input from the driver for four-wheel-drive operation. And all three systems come with a low-range set of gears that can be used for serious traction situations.
Grand Cherokee requires fewer try-and-fail attempts to conquer off-road obstacles. It will instill trail-driving confidence you never had, particularly if you know a few off-road skills, such as lifting both feet off the pedals while the Jeep is engine-braking down a mud-slicked embankment, or keeping both feet on both pedals while creeping over a pile of wet logs.
Jeep Grand Cherokee is a popular choice for families on the go that like its rugged image. It serves as a good suburban vehicle.
Jeep, however, claims many of its customers use their vehicles for driving off road. Indeed, only Land Rovers and Toyotas can compete with Jeep in off-road capability. Judged by off-road standards, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is a high-quality tool.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.